Liudmyla Bikus recalled how she had tried to dissuade her son Andrii from joining the army. That was in March, weeks after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, one year ago today. “Andrii told me: ‘Mum if I don’t go then who will?’” Bikus said. She added: “He was a golden boy. The best son, husband, father and brother. He wanted to defend his country and his family.”
Andrii was quickly dispatched to the eastern front. Less than three months later he was dead, fatally wounded on 6 June near the city of Lysychansk. A Russian shell landed on top of his artillery position. He was taken to hospital and died from blood loss on the operating table. Eight men from his company perished in the same lethal strike.
In September Andrii’s widow Natalia planted a blue and yellow flag with her late husband’s name on it in a memorial garden in central Kyiv. It said: “Eternal memory”. The non-official plot is on a grassy slope in the Maidan, the city’s independence square. On Thursday Bikus went to visit. She brought her daughter Alyona, Andrii’s sister.
They couldn’t find the flag. It had somehow got lost among hundreds of new ones, left by grieving relatives. Each marked a victim of Russia’s war: soldiers, civilians, volunteers. There were names, places, dates of birth and death. One said simply: “Anya from Mariupol”. Another: “Roman Stetsiura, 54th brigade, Bakhmut”. Nearby, under a tree, pigeons pecked in the February snow.
“A whole young generation is being wiped out. Guys are dying aged 19 and 20. They will never have children or grandchildren,” Bikus reflected. Andrii was 34. He was buried in Kyiv’s Berkovetske cemetery. His seven-year-old son Misha watched as his father’s coffin was lowered gently into the ground. “There are three or four funerals like ours every day,” Bikus said.
It is a year since the first explosions rocked Ukraine, soon after 4am on 24 February 2022, on a drizzly and grey-skied Thursday morning. Against the odds, Kyiv stills stands, defiant and free. Back then the expectation in Moscow – and among many western politicians – was that Putin’s army would seize Ukraine’s capital in three days. And, most probably, subjugate the whole of the country.
Since then, Ukraine – in the shape of Andrii, and other patriotic volunteers – has staged an extraordinary and inspiring fight back. Putin’s war plan didn’t work. Last spring Russian troops withdrew chaotically from the Kyiv region but not before going on a killing spree in Bucha and other garden suburbs. The town is now synonymous with some of the worst crimes of the 21st century.
By late autumn Ukrainian forces had reclaimed half the territory that was initially lost, including most of Kharkiv province in the north-east and the southern administrative capital of Kherson. Since then Russia has dug in. It has sent new reserves to the front. The war rages. Putin is determined to capture – or “liberate”, as he puts it – the entirety of the eastern Donbas region.
The future remains grimly uncertain. What can be said is that the human tragedy from Europe’s biggest war since 1945 is vast. According to Ukraine’s prosecutor, 9,655 civilians have died over the last year, including 461 children. Russia’s full-scale assault – featuring tank columns, airplanes and ships – provoked 8 million people to flee. Houses have been destroyed, lives uprooted, loved ones lost.
Despite this terrible toll, Ukrainians remain upbeat. Almost the entire nation believes in victory: 95%, according to a poll this week. Trust in the army is at 97%. “That we will win is certain,” Alla Schastna said on Thursday, as she bought a coffee from a downtown kiosk. “We know why we are fighting. The Russians soldiers don’t even understand where they are.”
Twelve months ago the mood in Kyiv was one of fear and dread. Since then a normality of a kind has returned. Many people have left the capital but others – from Mariupol and Kharkiv, cities pulverised by Russian bombs – have arrived. The electricity works, despite regular attacks. So does the train network. This week it delivered an important visitor: US president Joe Biden.
The war still feels close. From time to time air raid sirens ring out, as they did on Monday when Biden emerged from St Michael’s gold-domed cathedral with president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. There is an 11pm curfew. Already by 9.30pm the cobbled streets of Kyiv – home to art nouveau mansions and glorious baroque churches – are deserted, except for a few dog-walkers.
Nobody knows when the war might end. According to Serhiy Leshchenko – a former journalist and parliamentary deputy, now advising Andriy Yermak, Zelenskiy’s chief of staff – Ukraine has prevailed. “From a historical perspective Ukraine has won,” he said, speaking over breakfast in a Kyiv cafe. He clarified: “We have survived as an independent state with a democratic government.”
Leshchenko admitted the shape of this victory was uncertain. Questions loom. Does winning mean restoring Ukraine’s borders as they looked on 23 February last year, before Putin began his land grab? Or does it mean evicting Russia from territory it annexed in 2014, including Crimea and – effectively – the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, run for nine years by proxies?
Both scenarios mean a long conflict. “It looks like a forever war,” Leshchenko said, citing Putin’s west-bashing speech this week in Moscow. “Putin told Russians war is the new reality. He’s comfortable with this. He can use war to suppress the opposition, impose censorship and keep an eye on oligarchs.” Putin believes international support for Kyiv will eventually crumble, allowing Russia to win, he said.
It remains to be seen if this is true. Fresh American and European weapons such as battle tanks are on their way to Kyiv. Once they arrive Ukraine’s military command is likely to launch a spring counter offensive. On Monday Biden described the Kremlin’s belief that it would outlast the US and its allies as “plain wrong”. A year ago Putin also expected Ukrainians to welcome invading Russian troops – a delusion, as it turned out.
Volodymyr Yermolenko, a philosopher at the Kyiv-Mohyla academy, said Ukraine’s struggle was a global one. It “reversed the disillusionment about democracy” which had recently dominated western conversation, he said, concluding: “Democracies are stronger than autocracies.” If Russia lost, this might accelerate the “democratic process” in Belarus, Moldova, Armenia and other states, including in the Middle East, he predicted.
Yermolenko flagged the decisive role played by Zelenskiy, a former comedian turned president, whose ratings a year ago were sinking. Putin expected him to flee. He didn’t. Instead Zelenskiy personified Ukraine’s underdog struggle. He became one of the world’s pre-eminent leaders, an amplifier of the mood at home. “He removed the barrier between politics and people,” Yermolenko observed.
Putin’s ideological goal, it appears, is to eliminate Ukraine, a country he thinks does not exist. Ironically his invasion has had the opposite effect. Support for Nato membership and the EU has grown. 94% identify themselves as Ukrainian citizens, up from 76% in 2021. Half see themselves as Europeans, twice as many as the year before. Ukraine’s westward integration looks irreversible.
But it has come at a very high price. After half an hour and a search in sub-zero temperatures Bikus still hadn’t been able to locate her son’s blue and yellow memorial flag. She showed off a photo of him saved on her mobile phone, and taken last June just before he was killed. It showed a young man and father, dressed in military uniform, happy, and full of life and promise. The sun was shining.
“He was a wonderful person. We loved him very much,” Bikus said. She added: “We got news of his death from the military enlistment office. He and his wife, Nataliya, has been married for 13 years. Her first words were: ‘How can I live without him?’”